Euro 2016 has not exactly been an enthralling classic thus far, but the group stages can be less than inspiring. The knockout stages are where tournaments usually start to hot up, where it’s all or nothing and even a drab draw holds the prospect of a penalty shoot-out. Hosts and Group A winners France take on Republic of Ireland, who finished third in Group E, in what is not expected to be a classic, but could very well turn out to be dramatic. France coach Didier Deschamps has come under fire for everything from squad and team selections, to performances and results. Defensive injuries have not helped his cause and a lack of attacking fluidity in the group stages is not the ideal preparation for facing Martin O’Neil’s compact and combative Irish team.
It was an unconvincing start to Euro 2016 for France, but they began to show signs that were beginning to get going, although still not looking quite the potential tournament winners that many fancied. The goalless draw with Switzerland in their final group game was a sterile affair, though star player Paul Pogba looked to be finally finding his feet this summer. Of course, progress to the knockout stages was already guaranteed via victories over Romania and Albania, thanks in large part to West Ham’s Dimitri Payet. The attacking midfielder grabbed the headlines in the opening game with his tremendous winning goal and further added to his growing reputation by grabbing another in the next match to seal their passage through.
After an impressive debut Premier League campaign with the Hammers, Payet has seen his stock skyrocket at this summers’ European Championships. His vital late goal against Romania not only made him a hero, but also brought praise and attention for his performance in general and the reaction of the crowd when he was brought on against Switzerland is testament to that. His headline grabbing contributions could well attract the attention of big clubs at home and abroad; I wouldn’t be surprised if PSG decide they’d like to have a national hero in their squad, so West Ham could have a tricky time holding onto their prized possession.
Another Premier League based player in the France team that will no doubt be attracting admiring gazes from top clubs will be Leicester’s N’Golo Kante. The midfielder was particularly impressive in the opening game of the tournament, showcasing his ability to read play and win the ball. As imperious as he was all season in the Foxes, he has been for France and his seamless transition into international football will likely see the Premier League champions soon receiving bids. Testing his shielding in front of the French defence will be Southampton’s Shane Long, whose pace and movement will look to cause the French back four no end of trouble.
The task for Ireland will be a tough one; their squad may be more limited in terms of talent than their opponents, but organisation, togetherness and a strong resolve will be their best hope of progression. Their famous victory over Italy even made Roy Keane emotional and it will certainly give them confidence ahead this tough task facing them. France will be under a lot pressure and expectation to win and perhaps this is something Martin O’Neill’s side can take advantage of, especially with some of the friction still hanging over Deschamps and his selections – including dropping Pogba and Griezmann for their second group game. Nerves could play their part for the Irish, as could a less than stable French back four; set pieces could easily decide this tie.
If further motivation was required, then a look to potential quarter final opponents should do it. A match against England would invoke memories of Euro 88 for the Republic and would be a match they would surely dream of having. There is also a strong rivalry between France and England and if the hosts progress, a chance of revenge for their recent loss in a friendly with England will be high on the agenda. Alternatively, Iceland would be seen as a fantastic opportunity to reach the semi-final for either side, although underestimating the tournament minnows could be dangerous.
Perhaps predictably, I anticipate France to win, though I think it may take extra time, so my prediction is:
France 2-1 Rep. Ireland